39 The Challenge — Copy

‘This evening you will find yourselves in close company with extremely attractive women dressed in revealing clothing. This is their way. However, in their culture, the only sexual transgression is to take a woman against her will.’

John Stanley-12th May 1355

The most dangerous woman in the world?

As John awoke, a dozen different images provoked by this phrase presented themselves, but none of them was clear. He visualised at best a silhouette and often just a shadow.

John shook himself fully awake, branding himself as stupid, thinking non-stop about a woman he did not know, was unlikely to meet and in any case, was potentially the next Queen of England!

He had not paid enough attention to packing the rushes into his mattress the night before, consumed as he was by thoughts of the mystery woman. He had gone to sleep repeating her name to himself, and trying to find the right pronunciation. Jemaine, or was it, Germaine? No, the way the Captal pronounced it was nearer to Sheamaine. Perhaps it was somewhere between the three.

Though now extremely fit, this did not stop him from feeling the pain resulting from a night on the poorly-stuffed mattress. He struggled to rise to his feet. Vigorously he massaged his shoulder, wincing whilst he did so. He stretched his arms over his head, pulled on his jerkin, stepped over the other squires who shared his tent and thrust his head out of the tent to meet the crisp and clear air.

Keen to complete his duties before it got too hot, he plunged into the now familiar routine. He woke the other squires and dealt with their complaints about the roles they were allocated. He fed, watered and groomed two of the horses, his own and the horse Lord James rode. The other squires groomed their own horses. John pushed the cooks to prepare breakfast and encouraged them to inject a little variety into the menu. The other squires attended to the needs of Lord James. They provided clean clothes and made arrangements for dirty clothes to be washed. They tidied Lord James’s tent, polished his armour and made sure to lubricate the joints and check that straps were in good condition.

Squires did not possess armour, but Lord James now lent each squire, in turn, the opportunity to don his own armour so that they became more used to carrying its weight while exercising. Initially, John had been amazed that knights could do anything in full armour but now after the training programme, even though the fit of the armour was far from perfect, he could move more easily.

It was a special day. Training was over. Tomorrow they would start their journey east. They must face unknown danger.

John smiled. Oh! And just possibly he might get to see the most dangerous woman in the world.

Packing commenced and John, besides doing some of the work, organised the work of the other squires to inject some order into the packing process.

As usual, Ewan was less than happy. ‘Stop telling me what to do. You were given a role on the boat but that is all over now. You have no authority over me.’

‘It is true, Ewan. The authority comes from Lord James, but Lord James has given me a task of organising all our activities so that they may be performed efficiently and effectively. It is no different than the way he asked me to organise the training for all the soldiers and they did not object.’

Ewan glowered, but nevertheless, he followed John’s instructions.

By midday only the tents remained. Their duties satisfactorily completed, everyone was called together.

The Earl climbed onto the dinner table, from where he could be seen by everyone. ‘Our special mission will be carried out by the present company of forty-five men. This will be to avoid attracting undue attention. Our destination is Muret, near the headwaters of the Garonne River close to the Pyrenean mountains. Our objective is to protect the Prince, who is on his way to an important diplomatic meeting. For the latter part of our journey we will be travelling through lands controlled by the King of the Franks so we do not want to give advance warning of our identity.’

The Earl paused for breath. The Captal held his hand in the air and then moved forward. He attempted to climb onto the table but failed to find a secure footing. The Earl grasped his arm and with a mighty heave enabled the Captal to join him. The Captal’s arm stretched out in front of the Earl, emphasising his interruption. ‘I think we should explain why we have chosen to travel through the Frankish Lands.’ The Earl nodded, folded his hands behind his back stepped backwards and dropped his head in deference to the Captal.

The Captal continued, ‘There is a direct route between Biscarrosse and Muret on this side of the River Garonne. This would, however, take us through lands of the Armagnacs.

The Captal glanced quickly at the Earl before continuing. ‘The Armagnacs have been traditional supporters of the English, but are now flirting with a relationship with the Franks.’

The Earl had a rather grim look on his face and his lips were pressed tight together.

John realised that the Captal was challenging the Earl’s authority to lead this discussion. It was quite subtle but these two men were engaged in a struggle for power, and at this point, the Earl was losing!

The Captal continued. ‘I have therefore advised the Prince that we should cross the Garonne and travel to Muret along the north-eastern bank of the river thus avoiding Armagnac territory. Therefore at first light tomorrow we will march from Biscarrosse to Langon where the river can be crossed. As we travel east, that route will lead us eventually through lands nominally controlled by the Franks, but in my…’

He glanced again at the Earl who, with face still stern and motionless, raised one eyebrow.

‘…our opinion will be a less hazardous route.’

The Earl stepped forward. ‘We will deal with the Armagnacs later in the year, and are mobilising a substantial army to do that, but for now, I concur with the Captal that to cross the river is the better option.’

The Captal could hardly wait to regain control. He again stepped forward, the two men now stood shoulder to shoulder, toes overhanging the front edge of the table.

‘You are all invited to a feast this evening. I have arranged for the local village to host the celebration.’ He paused, adopting a serious demeanour. ‘This evening you will find yourselves in close company with extremely attractive women dressed in revealing clothing. This is their way. However, in their culture, the only sexual transgression is to take a woman against her will. A man may not force himself on a woman, no matter how attractive and apparently available she may seem. All you can do is express your admiration. It will be expected that you do so but then you must wait. It is the right of women to decide who they may accept, first as admirers then as companions and perhaps later as lovers. The common way of showing acceptance is to bestow a favour on the man in whom she is interested.’

He paused, looking around to make sure that everyone was listening carefully.

Before he could speak, the Earl again interrupted. ‘A word of warning! The culture is a remnant of the Cathar heretic religion about which you may have heard. Make no mistake, remnant or no remnant, the culture is still strong. If anyone contravenes, it will have the most severe implications for the individual and for the whole expedition. We must gain and retain the trust of the population of all the territories we visit. We want to leave them with a good impression of Aquitaine and England. For transgressors, punishment will be swift and severe.’

John glanced around, wondering if anyone else was aware of this conflict between the Earl and the Captal. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Prince. If the Prince was aware of any potential difficulty, he was not showing it; nor was he showing any interest at all in the proceedings. He sat on a log, lost in his own thoughts staring fixedly at the lake, screwing up his face to combat the sun’s reflection in the mirror-smooth water.

The most dangerous woman in the world

The Treasure of Trencavel

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